When Arnold Brown walks into Fred and Murry’s Kosher Deli in Freehold, Mindy Michaelson O’Connor greets him with a smile and asks, “The usual?”
It’s the same for Nicole Sonnenblick; she grew up eating matzah ball soup at the deli with her parents and now brings her children for a nosh. Her teenage son is so devoted to the “hush puppy” — a Hebrew National hot dog surrounded by potato knish filling and wrapped in an egg roll shell — that if she stops in for a weekday lunch and doesn’t bring one home, “I’m in trouble,” she said.
A stalwart behind the counter is owner Dan Richelson, whose grandmother, Minnie Chalnick, started the deli with her sons — Fred and Murry, now in their 80s — on Ralph Avenue in Brooklyn in 1960. When their customers began moving to New Jersey, the deli moved along with them, relocating to Freehold in 1981.
“Our regulars come in three, four times a week,” said Richelson, the son of Fred and Murry’s sister Eileen Palmeri. “When you have a hankering for corned beef or hot pastrami, nothing else scratches that itch. Kids come home from college — the suitcase is still in the car, and they are here for food.” Close to half his customers don’t bother to look at a menu because “they know what they want before they get out of the car.”
Richelson started washing dishes at the deli at 16. He put himself through Rutgers while learning the business, and as soon as he earned his college degree, he took over the restaurant with his brother. He now runs it on his own, with the support, he said, of his dedicated staff.
The deli remains a family affair. Several of Fred and Murry’s descendants have worked there over the years, and they return to pitch in at the busiest times — before Rosh HaShanah, Chanukah, and Passover. During those hectic days, when lines wind out the door, the staff of 25 swells to 45, with myriad family members taking their place behind the counter, including Richelson’s wife, Meredith, and his mother-in-law, Vicki. “There are podiatrists slicing meat, fathers working with sons, kids home from college, cousins and second cousins,” Richelson said.
Familiar, mouth-watering sights greet all those who walk through the door. Salamis hang behind the counter next to huge jars of mustard and sauerkraut. Near the register, oversized black-and-white cookies sit next to the chocolate apple strudels, with rows of Dr. Brown’s sodas arrayed in front. The glass cases hold six varieties of knishes and chicken pot pies with dark-brown crusts spilling over their sides.
At one table, a diner digs into a huge matzah ball nestled in a bowl with a pile of noodles and carrot chunks. Hungry customers can bypass the four-ounce junior, the seven-ounce regular, and go right for the “10-ounce overstuffed sandwich,” which is served with up to three kinds of sliced meats.
The deli is one of the few restaurants in New Jersey that still pickles its own corned beef, Richelson said, a 10-day process that takes place in a walk-in refrigerator behind the building. The recipe — like all the others — comes from Richelson’s grandmother and is a closely guarded secret, written in code in a book that only a handful of employees have access to.
Fewer customers are kosher-observant these days, and there are more diners who are not Jewish, Richelson said. “This type of food has assimilated into the culture. A corned beef sandwich is just as American as a slice of pizza.” The deli is under the supervision of Rabbi Ira Rothstein of Temple Beth Shalom in Manalapan.
In the back room on a recent Tuesday, a dozen women from Manalapan and Freehold were playing their weekly games of mah-jongg and canasta, with a midday break for lunch. One of the players, Sarah Semaya, remembers visiting the deli when it was in Brooklyn. “I always bring in their mushroom barley soup and knishes for Rosh HaShanah,” she said.
Sam Markman has worked at Fred and Murry’s for 22 years. He loves the “organized chaos” of the rush before Jewish holidays, as well as getting to know the many families who come in and watching their children grow up. “A woman called last week for a platter. She mentioned it was her son’s 25th birthday and told me, ‘You did his bris.’ We hear that every day,” said Markman, who lives in Tinton Falls.
Arnold Brown often stops in on his way to New York City, where he works as a musician and recording engineer. His favorite dish is “Fred & Murry’s Famous Sloppy Joe” — corned beef, pastrami, turkey, and roast beef dressed with cole slaw and Russian dressing — but that’s too messy for the car. Instead, he picks up three hot dogs. “I bring my family and friends here,” he said. “They all love it.”
“There are not many places like this left,” said Richelson, expressing his pride in guiding the restaurant into the future and his responsibility to preserve its traditions. “The bowl of soup you have here reminds you of growing up.”